REVOLUTIONS PER MINUTE
By Francis Mckee
‘Ever felt like you’ve been cheated?’ That was Johnny Rotten’s question to the audience at Winterlands on January 14, 1978 when the Sex Pistols imploded live onstage. Most people knew what he meant. Punk had promised little and delivered less. At the time, however, it still seemed the best hope to recapture the snarling zeitgeist of 1968, something most of the punk generation had missed in the first place. That particular year had seemed to offer the real possibility of revolution. In the space of 12 months the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive, riots tore Paris, Tokyo and Berlin to shreds, Russian tanks stormed Prague, Mao unleashed the Cultural Revolution, and peace evaporated in Ireland, the Basque provinces and Turkey. Meanwhile, Andreas Baader burnt down his first building, Carlos Marighella completed his Mini-Manual of terrorism in Brazil and Giangiacomo Feltrinelli called for armed guerrilla warfare across Europe.
In the year in which Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, this list of revolutionary events reflected the end of one era of idealism and the beginning of a more desperate age in which utopias are fought over tooth and nail. By the time the Sex Pistols came along, all of these visions had turned sour and‘no future at all’ seemed a reasonable prognosis.
Today's utopias often seem to offer no more than retreat from the world around us. On the web site new-utopia.com, for instance, 'The Principality of New Utopia' advertises its vision of 'an oasis in the middle of the ocean'. The aim is stated as 'to build in New Utopia the finest hospital in the world, dedicated to the anti-ageing and longevity modalities where you may have any treatment you wish, so long as you and your doctor agree'.
Against such a background, Ross Sinclair's work investigates the possible role for a utopia in contemporary culture. Journey to the Edge of the World is the most recent of a series of works which consider questions of geography, history and the nation state. Earlier works such as his Black Flag series - Black Europe, Black Union: England, USA '92, Black Switzerland, and LKW - explore the creation and defining of national difference. These works have been paralleled by a series of constructions - the scaffold of Real Life Death, an Aggressive Utopian Croft Model, an International Bank of Real Life Spiritual Gold, the Museum of Despair, and the Dead Church/Real Life. The constructions mirror the key institutions in the classical concept of the city. Other works such as Real Life Rocky Mountain echoes notions of the traditional rural retreat and the romanticisation of the landscape. And, as Scotland's own utopian dream of a national parliament edged closer, Hamnavoe Free State considered rebellion and secession.
It is useful to compare this last work with Journey to the Edge of the World. Hamnavoe took place in the run up to the formation of the new Scottish Parliament and, with its display of weapons and tools, there is an implicit sense of a struggle for freedom and confrontation with an established power. However the weapons, painted in their unlikely colours, seem impracticable and the construction of a bright yellow launch pad suggests that it is the imagination that must take flight to achieve this 'free state'. The power Hamnavoe is resisting is not a geographical force - it is the gravitational pull of well-worn systems of thought. Journey to the Edge of the World, however, knowingly situates itself within a long tradition of utopianism and takes place shortly after the creation of the Scottish Parliament. Using the island of St Kilda as the basis of the piece, Sinclair creates a topsy-turvey mirror world complete with its own parliament, cinema, history and geography. There are echoes of Michael Powell's first film, The Edge of the World, a semi-fictional/semi-documentary tale set on the island of Foula.’ In both works real geography and history quickly become secondary to the creation of an imaginary mental landscape. Both are set on islands that are now uninhabited and even when populated were harsh and unforgiving environments. As H.G. Wells said, defining his 'Modern Utopia',
Our deliberate intention is to be not, indeed, impossible, but most distinctly impracticable, by every scale that reaches only between today and tomorrow.(2)
The impracticability of Sinclair's utopia is underlined by its deliberate construction from cardboard boxes. Like a child's world, this St Kilda is cobbled together from mundane materials and transformed only through the power of the inhabitants' imagination.
The work was conceived and exhibited after the formation of a Scottish Parliament but its implications go far beyond the concerns of any one country. The newly elected body sitting in debate in Edinburgh inevitably must focus on the mundane details of legislation and the minutiae of daily life. Sinclair's vision of St Kilda offers a more universal mental landscape freed from the regular vexations of money, time-keeping and crime. In this respect, his island resembles many earlier utopian visions of a land of ease, well stocked with fantastical foods. As far back as the fourteenth century, there was the 'Land of Cockeyne' with its monastery built of food:
Ah, those chambers and those halls!
All of pasties stand the walls,
Of fish and flesh and all rich meat,
The tastiest that men can eat.
Wheaten cakes the shingles all,
Of church, of cloister, bower and hall.
The pinnacles are fat puddings3
And as recently as the US depression there was a paradise in 'The Big Rock Candy Mountains' where:
The little streams of alcohol
Come a-trickling down the rocks...
There’s a lake of stew and of whiskey too.
There ain’t no short-handled shovels,
No axes, saws or picks,
I’m bound to stay where they sleep all day,
Where they hung the Turk that invented work.(4)
Such ease could, though, lead to a deadening of desire as Defoe's Robinson Crusoe discovered on his desert island utopia:
In the first place I was removed from all the wickedness of the world here. I had neither the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, or the pride of life [1 John 2: 16]. I had nothing to covet; for I had all that I was now capable of enjoying; I was lord of the whole manor; or if I pleased, I might call myself king or emperor over the whole contry which I had possession of. there were no rivals; I had no competitor, none to dispute sovereignty or command with me. I might have raised ship-loadings of corn; but I had no use for it; so I let as little grow as I thought enough for my occasion. I had tortoise or turtles enough; but now and then one was as much as I could put to any use. I had timber enough to have built a fleet of ships. I had grapes enough to have made wine, or to have cured into raisins, to have loaded that fleet when they had been built. But all I could make use of was all that was valuable.
Crusoe's story is at least positive, if a little dull. The history of Utopias, however, offers more complex and cruel visions from Plato's Republic with its slavery, eugenics policy and class system to contemporary creations by Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.(5)
The St Kilda of Journey to the Edge of the World contains its own serpent in the garden in the guise of Roderick the Impostor - an imposing, red-haired eighteen-year old illiterate who comes to dominate the islanders. A real,, historical figure from the 17th century, Roderick was described by a visitor who said 'Ambition was his leading principle, and lust his secondary passion, avarice was another strong ingredient in the composition of his mind.' Posing as a religious leader, Roderick 'used the sacrament of confession as a device to penetrate the secrets of every household on the island and became a powerful man.'
The inclusion of this one figure sharpens the focus of Sinclair's St Kilda - it is not a lotus-land or a sensual state of amnesia. Instead it is a landscape in which to shed received ideas and explore new structures of thought. In this context, there are parallels with an interesting precedent in Northern Ireland in the '80s. Straining to find neutral ground in which to debate religious and political differences, the Field Day Theatre Company posited the 'fifth province' - an imaginary region of Ireland that would sit alongside the four actual provinces of Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht. In this imaginary landscape, ideas could be tested and battles could be fought with no quarter. It was a pioneering virtual world in which the unsayable could be voiced without fear of retribution.
Perhaps, too, there was an easier accessibility to this kind of imaginary world because the barbaric Celtic fringes of the British Isles were regularly mythologised by more civilian inhabitants of the counties. The most lasting example of this visionary approach came with the rise of the Romantic movement and the subsequent recasting of the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands as areas in which to experience the sublime. For many, St Kilda also represented the acme of this phenomenon. The island's desolation, it's ruggedness and the 'primitive' quality of it's people lent itself perfectly to the Romantic quest for 'a delightful Horrour' and 'terrible joy'.(6) St Kilda, untouched by the worst excesses of civilisation, allowed the visitor to perceive nature in its raw state - the 'wild vast and indigested heaps of stone - the ruins of a broken world'.7 The island functioned as a theatre of the mind, allowing the romantic imagination to run riot.
For the Field Day Company, their 'fifth province' also stood as a metaphor for the actual stage and theatre itself as a locus for freeing the imagination. In Ross Sinclair's case, Journey to the Edge of the World takes a critical approach to the white cube gallery space, the art market and the museum. His installation is deliberately lo-fi. It is an ephemeral cardboard set which tries to defy the commodification of art - a utopian dream for artists since the late '60s. The high walls of the boxes comprising the installation obliterate all trace of the white cube in which it sits and instead make reference to the open access dioramas of the modern museum display. The naming of various spaces ('History', 'Geography', 'Cinema' etc) reinforces this museological ambience. In doing this, Journey to the Edge of the World confronts the utopian impulse at the heart of the museum as an institution.(8) Evolving from its roots in European collectors' cabinets of curiosity, the museum developed an enlightenment agenda that rested on the fantasy of gathering and classifying as much information as possible. This idea of knowledge was both positive and comprehensive - the visitor to the museum would be educated, improved and imbued with an overview of civilisation.
Sinclair's installation is a looking-glass reflection of this programme and, as such, the information in his museum display does not function as an enlightenment archive. Instead, his upside down backwards maps and films unravel our knowledge and learning. We enter a zone where paradox reigns, certainty is suspended and new possibilities thrive. In 1969 the American artist Robert Smithson describes the memory-traces of a landscape he had created with mirrors that vanished as quickly as it had been created, saying 'The memory of what is not may be better than the amnesia of what is'.(9) It may be a useful phrase to bear in mind when travelling to Sinclair's island at the edge of the world.